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Outside the Lines: Wisconsin Football Faces Season of Turmoil
|Outside The Lines - Wisconsin Football Faces Season of Turmoil
September 10, 2000
Bob Ley, Host - How, you might ask, could the two-time Rose Bowl
champions with a legitimate chance to win the national championship this
year find themselves in this mess?
Head coach, Barry Alvarez and his coaching staff juggling NCAA suspensions for 26 plays all because of discounts at a sneaker store. There is a familiar echo here.
Last year, Peter Warrick's infamous clothing discounts led to a suspension that likely cost him the Heisman Trophy. And ACLU's season went south soon after players were suspended for using handicapped parking permits.
It could have been much worse for Wisconsin. Originally, the NCAA suspended 47 players. And Wisconsin officials actually discussed forfeiting their season opener.
Only an 11th hour appeal by video conference reduced that sentence. Athletes on other Wisconsin teams will face discipline for their discounts. But the Badger football team approached yesterday's game against powerful Oregon knowing that a number of starters and other established players will again be sitting giving walk-on players larger roles than ever.
Jeremy Schaap was in Madison, Wisconsin, through this week on the brink.
Jeremy Schaap, ESPN correspondent - The story that broke seven weeks ago that dozens of University of Wisconsin athletes had received discounts on sneakers hit home for the Badgers only 10 days ago. Just hours before their season opening game against western Michigan, they learned that many of those players would be suspended by the NCAA.
Alvarez - I stand by my kids. People need to understand that there was no intent to do anything wrong.
Schaap - With 11 players, including five starters, suddenly suspended from that first game, the reigning Rose Bowl champions were forced to rely on backups. In the second quarter, junior Josh Hunt, a walk-on, a non-scholarship player, returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown.
Unidentified male - He's to the 10, the five, touchdown Wisconsin.
Schaap - The week before the game against western Michigan, Bret Burlingame, like Josh Hunt a Badger walk-on, was back home in Ft. Atkinson 30 miles east of Madison. Burlingame was training, preparing for a season during which he was likely to play only sparingly.
A fifth-year senior, Burlingame has spent thousands of hours training and practicing with the badgers. He plays on special teams and has made exactly one tackle in his career, against Ohio, not Ohio state.
Still back in Burlingame's apartment off campus, two Rose Bowl rings rest on his dresser. They are the reward all the hours spent practicing and nursing injuries.
Burlingame - Not every day that I necessarily want to come over here. But at the end of the day, it's always worth it.
Schaap - This week, however, as Wisconsin prepares to pay a talented Oregon team, Burlingame is more anxious than ever to report for practice. His teammates have not all served their suspensions. And over the next three days, while many of them are sidelined, Burlingame, a defensive back, may play more than ever before.
This week, Burlingame and his fellow walk-ons are practicing to play.
Alvarez - We need them. Our program would be nowhere near it is today without the walk-ons.
Schaap - Unlike the hero of the movie "Rudy," patron saint of all walk-ons, walk-ons at Wisconsin have a real chance to be stars. Four former Wisconsin walk-ons are currently playing in the NFL.
And Jason Doering, who was once a walk-on, is the captain of this year's team. Doering says that this week, those who walked on to the team must step up for the team.
Jason Doering, Wisconsin captain, former walk-on player - And I think it gives them a great chance to get on the field and show people what they can do and that they don't deserve to be a walk-on. They deserve to be just like everybody else on scholarship.
Schaap - The stereotypical all-American drives around campus in a fancy sports car or an SUV. Burlingame, like many of the Badgers, gets around on a moped. His grade point average is 3.9. He'll graduate this winter and hopes to become a physician. He's generous with his time, working with the mentally disabled.
But like so many of his teammates, he also bought sneakers at a discount. He won't be suspended. But he will have to do 24 hours of community service.
Barry Alvarez says the NCAA's punishment for Burlingame and his teammates far exceeds their crime, that his players merely shopped at a store where nearly everyone receives discounts.
Alvarez - I can understand if they were wrong, they should be punished. But you can't treat that like somebody handed them a $100 bill. You can't treat that like somebody had given them a free pair of shoes. The punishment shouldn't be the same. And I'll never agree with that.
Schaap - The store in question, The Shoe Box about 25 miles from campus, calls itself the largest independent shoe store in the Midwest. Steve Schmitt, the owner of The Shoe Box, says that contrary to published reports, he's not a Wisconsin booster, has never even met Alvarez, and the discounts he gives athletes are the discounts he would give to anyone.
Steve Schmitt, owner of the Shoe Box - I never refused a request for one discount here in 33 years. The more they buy, the more I'll throw off.
Schaap - Just to be clear.
Schmitt - Talk to me.
Schaap - These kids weren't getting discounts here because they're Wisconsin athletes?
Schmitt - No way. They would get discounts because they were customers. And they were along with a high school kid or a kid that comes in here that's not even an athlete. If he comes over here, he's going to get a discount.
Schaap - The NCAA has ruled that the athletes must repay The Shoe Box for whatever discounts they received. Wisconsin may pay a far greater price if the suspensions jeopardize its first real chance in decades for a national championship.
Schaap - With the game against Oregon now just a few days away, Bret Burlingame and the rest of the defensive backs are studying the Ducks' offense.
Todd Bradford, Wisconsin defensive backs coach - Bret's a great worker. He's done everything we've asked him to do here. And he plays a bunch of different positions for us. You know, one week he's a corner. One week he's a safety. One week he's a nickel.
He's kind of a valuable guy to be able to switch around like that. And it has a lot to do with what a smart kid he is.
Schaap - Burlingame lives with several walk-ons who insist he's their Rudy, a characterization he naturally resists.
Do you consider Bret Rudy?
Chris Wagner, Junior Wisconsin walk-on - Yeah, he's got the blond hair. I've seen him get down on the D line a couple of times. So I don't know...
Schaap - But like Rudy, and like most walk-ons, Burlingame loves simply being part of the team.
Burlingame - You take so much out of playing football at Wisconsin. It's unbelievable. You learn how to be a team player. You learn discipline. You learn dedication. You learn a lot of things that most just ordinary students won't get out of going to school for four or five years.
Unidentified male - Talk about playing great at home, this is a perfect and prime example and a prime opportunity, man. National TV, let the country know what we're all about.
Schaap - The game rapidly approaching, the pressure on the back-ups is mounting. Josh Hunt, last week's hero, knows he'll play but also knows what walk-ons with less experience are feeling.
Josh Hunt, Junior Wisconsin walk-on - This is what you've been practicing for. This is what you've been waiting for all your time here. So I think there's a lot of excitement for guys that haven't played, nervousness and excitement mixed, intertwined.
Burlingame - There is a lot of pressure just because it's something that we're not exactly used to. But at the same time, we always hope for this kind of thing. And while there's still pressure, it's a good kind of pressure. We look forward to it.
Schaap - Game day at Camp Randall Stadium. In less than a decade, Alvarez has transformed the once-morbid (ph) program into one of the nation's best. That success is reflected in the newfound fervor of its fans. They wind the path from the locker room to the tunnel.
Playing without several of its best players, Wisconsin struggles offensively in the first half. In the second half, Ryan Marx (ph), a one-time walk-on who earned a scholarship, blocks and Oregon punt and recovers it for a touchdown.
Jason Doering, another walk-on now with a scholarship, makes key hit after key hit. And the Badgers eke out a four-point win.
Joining in the celebration, another former walk-on now in the NFL.
Donnel Thompson , Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker - It's a family. It's a close-knit family. And the walk-ons is almost like a secret society almost.
Schaap - But Bret Burlingame never got off the sidelines.
Burlingame - Well, basically all I have to do for next week is just practice harder, try to get on the field for next week.
Schaap - Maybe next week, Burlingame, like Rudy, can make the big play.
Ley - ESPN's Jeremy Schaap.
Massive player suspensions for a team with a national championship potential. Joining us to discuss Wisconsin's play and the larger issues it raises from New York City, Terry Bowden, former head coach of Auburn University. He is currently a studio analyst for ABC Sports. And from South Bend, Indiana, where he saw a heck of a game yesterday, Malcolm Moran of the "Chicago Tribune."
Terry, let me restate the question I began with earlier today. How in the heck is Wisconsin in this mess?
Terry Bowden, ABC Sports analyst - Well, you know, I think the players, if they didn't know, they should have known that they were probably getting something more, discounts even more than other students. So there must be two sides of this story.
But I can't believe the NCAA didn't see something more. They did wrong. The players didn't wrong. The coaches probably shouldn't have known.
But let's don't just overlook it. Put them in time-out. It's not a felony. Put them in time-out and forget about it, and let's go on.
Ley - Forty-seven suspensions originally, Terry, could Barry Alvarez have fielded any sort of a team with 47? That was the original penalty.
Bowden - Yeah, well he could have put 11 on the field. Whether he could have had a competitive team I doubt. But this is where the walk-on comes in and maybe the possibility.
I know I was a walk-on. The piece I've seen so far brings back great memories. My brother and I were all walk-ons in college. And the thought of somebody unfortunately getting hurt or suspended, we didn't sleep much the night before figuring that was going to be our chance to get in and help our team win.
Ley - Malcolm, what did you make of the NCAA policy? Was this hunting fleas with an elephant gun by the NCAA? Or did the punishment fit the crime?
Malcolm Moran, "Chicago Tribune" - Well, the question is does a scenario such as this and others in high-profile situations threaten the entire enterprise? You've got millions of dollars swirling around these stadiums. You've got people in the stands investing in it through their tickets. You've got television networks.
And when you don't know who's going to play or when a coach doesn't know on Friday afternoon which starters will be eligible or ineligible because of a situation like this, it threatens the credibility of the whole enterprise.
Ley - Because the players this past week for the second game of the suspensions, Terry, were told on Tuesday. But Barry Alvarez, I guess the only card he felt he had to play was to keep that absolutely inside the team and a state secret until just before kickoff. Is that the only card he had to play here?
Bowden - Yeah, this thing is going on for seven months. Something tells me the university kept hoping it would go away. The NCAA kept saying, "There's more to this than what you would think."
You know, I've been in a part of the country where a lot of the things like this have happened a lot. I guarantee you there's some boosters, there's alums, and there's people out there owning businesses that will tell the people, that will tell the public, and will tell the NCAA about anything they want to tell them.
Ley - Well, this entire situation began when there was a disgruntled former employee at the shoe store turning in receipts into a local newspaper. That's how it all began.
Malcolm, this game actually was off the board in Las Vegas. You talk about integrity. Even the people who bet on college basketball or football didn't know what to expect here.
Moran - And that's another question that I'm sure is not a particularly flattering one for the NCAA to deal with. You're talking about an enterprise with an appeal that depends partly on gambling. To what extent, we could sit here all day and discuss. But the fact is, if you don't know who's going to play, there is a serious question about the whole thing.
Ley - And there were questions the entire week about exactly who would be in. We will continue talking about this situation and the NCAA handling of situations like this with Terry and Malcolm in just a moment.
Ley - And we continue talking with Terry Bowden and Malcolm Moran about the penalties at Wisconsin. And gentlemen, as you can well imagine, there's a lot of discussion and enmity on the Madison campus towards the NCAA. In fact, Barry Alvarez was hoping to get an appellate hearing on Friday for a player to make him eligible for yesterday's game.
And after the game yesterday, this is what Barry said. "After dealing with the NCAA this week, I am not confident in anything that they do, anything. I have no confidence in them. I don't have any confidence in them whatsoever because I don't know that they understand kids or care about kids."
Malcolm, just factoring in the emotion of the situation, there are those that would say on the other hand, the NCAA did Wisconsin a major favor by doing this to them early in the season.
Moran - And I know for a fact, Bob, after dealing with a number of people who were involved in this kind of decision making process that there are people in the mix that care very much about students and athletes and the pressures that come with both roles.
The problem that Barry discusses, though, which is an absolutely valid point is the timeliness of it. If you're going to make this kind of decision in fairness to the people involved, there has to be every effort made to provide the proper decision as quickly as possible. And that was something that Barry felt didn't happen in this case.
Ley - Terry, what do you make of the fact that we now have a basically ala carte justice? In years past, if something like this happened with the NCAA, it's very likely a team and an entire school would be penalized. Now we see increasingly individual player suspensions. Is that a fairer way to approach this? Or does it force quicker decisions such as Malcolm just described?
Bowden - You know, I think again you're trying to take blame and put it where the responsibility lies. There's nothing I hated as a coach more than to punish all my players for the faults of a couple. So we try to really find the exact reason where the blame lies, try to punish those that are at fault.
But it becomes very difficult. And again, suspensions that come before the total facts come out are very difficult. But again, I see a situation basically if coaches and players always abided by the rules, we wouldn't need an NCAA investigative force. We wouldn't need these kind of actions.
So there obviously is some kind of need. This doesn't seem to be a very good answer, suspending players right there at the very last moment where it affects the university and a lot of other people.
Ley - What should a coach know? Terry, you know from personal experience...
Bowden - Yeah.
Ley - ... You're the CEO of a large corporation when you're a major college football coach. What should you know? You're expected to know everything, I imagine.
Bowden - No, you can't know everything. And you should not be expected to know everything.
And I do believe the NCAA understands that we are not going to be accountable for things we should not be able to know. In other words, in this situation here, the NCAA is not necessarily saying that the coaches should have known.
What they're saying is based upon the Florida state shoe incident, based upon Peter Warrick's discount situation, these players knew absolutely they were getting discounts that are not within the rules of the NCAA. They knew it and without a doubt did it.
The only point I had to make earlier, hey, this isn't a felony. This is more of a misdemeanor. Let's put them in time-out if we have to and then go on with it. Unfortunately, we see how this affects a lot of other people, universities, and programs. And they're not easy decisions.
Ley - Malcolm, apparently this has been going on for years. Athletes have been driving for miles. John Hall (ph), who is with the Jets, went to Wisconsin, said back in '93 they knew about this. So in fact, the compliance officer for the school was out there in November and looked into the situation. It could have disturbed Ron Dayne's season last year.
Moran - Well, and the other point that needs to be made, Bob, is that there have been so many high-profile cases somewhat similar to this that every athlete walking in the front door of his or her freshman year has to understand that there is a basic responsibility here to first of all understand the rules, but second of all and more to the point understand that when you meet somebody new, anything past the handshake is uncharted territory that can bring down a program. I'm sitting in South Bend, which went through a terrible episode based on the terrible decisions of athletes and who they associated with and what they did.
Ley - Terry, in specific terms, how did you try and keep an eye on your program at Auburn and what your kids were doing?
Bowden - Well, I agree with what Malcolm was just saying because every week I would sit down with my players if not every day and I would say, "Son, don't you understand that if somebody gives you anything, anything, you need to turn it down." And I would say this every day, because that's what's going to happen. A booster, an alum, a friend, they want to be your best friend. They want to do something for you.
And all the players are aware of this. And so I think that's the only issue that I think here at Wisconsin, these players knew exactly that they were on the edge and unfortunately that the consequences of their actions may hurt a larger university, a coaching staff, and a lot of other people. And so I can't make it worse than what it is.
It's doing things that a lot of students would do in a heartbeat. But athletes are very aware right now. Every coach's duty is not to find out because we can't, but it's to make the players aware of what the consequences will be of their actions.
Moran - And Bob, part of the problem is you have a telephone book sized rule book that essentially says that athletes have to be treated the same as all the other students. But the 21st century reality is they can't be like any other students.
They live in a fish bowl. Every move is scrutinized. And whether it's fair or unfair, they have to understand that that is how they are being judged.
Ley - Very quickly, Malcolm, they move up, Wisconsin does, in the new poll to come out in about a half-hour, from six to five. Will voters take all this into account?
Moran - They shouldn't. I mean, I've never voted. But if I was a voter, the whole idea of discounted shoes doesn't seem to have very much to do with a judgment over which team is better than what team.
Ley - Terry.
Bowden - I agree. I think Wisconsin, in fact, I'd give them more votes. I mean, I think of the way they came out one Saturday against a very good Oregon team that has been a successful football team in spite of their difficulties...
Ley - They move up.
Bowden - ... I wouldn't move them down, that's for sure.
Ley - OK, Miami lost and they moved up. Gentlemen, thanks a great deal. Thanks to Terry Bowden and to Malcolm Moran.
Next, the tradition of prayer before high school football games colliding with a Supreme Court ruling as we continue on OUTSIDE THE LINES.
Ley - Public pre-game prayer at high school football games was struck down by the Supreme Court back in June. But in at least one school district in South Carolina, it continues. Last week on OUTSIDE THE LINES, we considered the issues surrounding this longtime football ritual.
Rep. Lindsey Graham (R), South Carolina - We have got to be silly I think in disallowing people at a football game to have a moment of prayer or silence to respect those people who are about to play and wish people well to go back home and not to be hurt. This has gotten to be crazy.
Barry Lynn, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State - Congressman, there was nothing silent about it. There was nothing non-sectarian about the prayers that we've been hearing prayed down in South Carolina. They're Christian prayers, and we all know that.
Ley - From our e-mail inbox, "What is the debate? As long as it's not going to incite violence or jeopardize the safety of those attending, leave it alone. Give people a moment prior to kickoff to pray to whomever they want, remain silent, or celebrate to honor whomever they want, or if they choose just sit there and not participate in anything. At least it will be for the individual to decide."
Another viewpoint - "The question of prayer is not a matter of freedom of speech. It's about the separation of church and state. And to prove, that simply have a student offer a prayer that is not Christian in origin. Would the school districts allow a student to say a prayer in Hebrew? Would they permit a student to face Mecca and offer a prayer to Allah before a football game? It's unlikely we'll ever find out, which is a shame because it would provide the opportunity to expose those schools and religious leaders as the hypocrites they are."
The best way to be in touch is online at ESPN.com on our new front page. Type in the keyword otlweekly. For those asking for copies of programs, you will find a complete library of not only transcripts, but streaming video, as well as a place to voice your opinions and suggestions. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. Thanks for being in touch.
Ley - A reminder, if you missed any portion this morning, our program will re-air at its usual time over on ESPN2. That is 1-00 p.m. Eastern. So tune over right after "NFL Countdown."
"SportsCenter" will be back in 30 minutes. I'm Bob Ley. We will see you next Sunday morning at 9-30 Eastern OUTSIDE THE LINES. Now we take you to the ESPN Zone in Times Square for "The Sports Reporters." And again, "SportsCenter" coming along in 30 minutes with "Countdown" at 11-00 Eastern with a complete two-hour preview of everything happening in NFL week two.
Now, Mike Lupica and "The Sports Reporters."
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